Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Hunger Games, Religion, and Women (or not)

After finishing Mockingjay, I read Slate's Book Club on the topic. There was much discussion of the ending and the violence, of course, but they also mentioned two ideas that got me thinking about Humanism again.

1) Panem is almost perfectly egalitarian. Women and men have equal chance to be good, evil, vacuous, creative, President, and killed in the Arena. (Although I don't think women work in the mines.)

2) Katniss is weirdly virginal. As a person so in touch with sensation, in such a heightened dramatic situation, and an adolescent, wouldn't she be sexually adventurous?

The first got me thinking about the lack of religion in the books again. Religion is one of the primary tools men have used to oppress women throughout history. After all, if it's all about the afterlife, it doesn't matter that you can't do anything in this life, right? It's one of the few ways we can see that Panem may have come from the world we know now. After the devastation of global warming and the wars, the people left decided that the new society would have complete equality and no religion. And things devolved from there.

However, I have to disagree with the statement about equality. Yes, there are women in power, and in the Capitol, it seems there is a kind of equality. There is also equality in the Reaping and the Hunger Games. However, in District 12, we see women in very traditional roles--raising children, helping in the bakery, and so forth. Greasy Sae seems to be the only woman who works in the Hob, and she is a cook.

Item number 2 I kind of disagree with. The main focus of the book seems to be an exploration of Katniss and the effects of trauma on a very strong human being. At the beginning of the book, we see Katniss beginning to emerge from post-traumatic stress that was a result of the sudden death of her father and subsequent depression of her mother. She has learned to take care of her family, they are surviving, and as her mother emerges from her depression, Katniss is aware of the fact that she is shutting her mother out emotionally, which is the first step to eventually forgiving her mother and moving on. In order to cope with the stress she has been under, she has shut herself off emotionally from everyone except Prim, and kept her distance from everyone except Gale. But she is reaching the point where recovery and a normal life are possible when the Games intervene.

Still, this history has prevented her normal adolescent development. She didn't spend her teenage years ogling boys with her girlfriends, trying on different outfits and reading romance novels. She spent them hunting with Gale and trading in the Hob and making sure every waking moment was dedicated to taking care of her family. So when boys start admiring her in her new dresses and she starts kissing Peeta, her feelings surprise and confuse her. This is underscored at the beginning of the Quarter Quell when the various Victors tease Katniss (Finnick with his flirting, Joanna stripping naked, etc.) Peeta sees this teasing for what it is, but Katniss is completely overwhelmed by it. This suggests that Peeta's sexual development has taken a more normal course (although he's remarkably self-possessed at 17) whereas Katniss is stunted. This is all augmented by Katniss's extreme fear of having children because any children she has will be under threat of the Reaping.

What is not addressed is how women achieved their remarkable equality in Panem. Women in District 12 do not seem to enjoy that liberty--we see women staying home while men work in the mines, or helping in stores (as in Peeta's family.) However, in the Capitol there is more equality.

Darn it. I started out intending to write about the fact that only a religionless and sexless society seems to be able to produce total equality of the sexes, and I have talked myself out of the equality part and the sexless part.

One wonders, then, how the society functions without religion. Most dystopian fiction contains some kind of cultural ritual, be it explicitly religious or shockingly secular. But in this world, the only ritual they seem to have is the Hunger Games. How, then, do the people in the Capitol justify their lifestyle? They know, from watching the Hunger Games, how different life is in the Districts. It is stated in Mockingjay that they have trouble recruiting people from the Capitol to become Peacekeepers because they don't want to live in the Districts. Without religion telling them that they are better than the District citizens, how do they live with themselves? Sure, there are those (like Katniss's prep team) who don't think about anything, but what about normal people? What holds them together as a community? What makes them feel that they should be loyal to the President, or the Capitol?

One reason I think people are unsatisfied with the trilogy is that they want to know more about Panem: how it works, what rituals it has, and why it functions. I think the people who are unsatisfied with the ending are looking for one of two things: a happy resolution (which is impossible) or a description of the political situation post-revolution. But Collins isn't interested in Panem, particularly. She is exploring the psyche of an adolescent girl whose world is destroyed piece by piece but who survives. That's why the ending is so quick and so anticlimactic. Because once the Capitol is done with Katniss, Katniss begins to heal, and Collins loses interest. Her only point after that is that Katniss never recovers completely, and the rest of her life is framed by her participation in the Hunger Games and the Revolution. The world doesn't really change because people don't really change, but Katniss changes enough that she is able to have children, and mostly enjoy them.

Now I talked myself out of the only bit I had left. We don't know about the rituals of Panem because Collins was only interested in setting up a world where Katniss could be destroyed.

I really liked the books, though, because it's a fascinating character study. While there are choices I would have preferred (the real Peeta in book 3, for example, would have been more interesting in a lot of ways) Collins always takes away the one thing Katniss is counting on, and Peeta's love is an important piece. It's a really interesting thought exercise.

But I'm afraid it has nothing to do with Humanism.

Oh, well. On Saturday I'm going to a meeting of my local Humanist group. Maybe I'll have something relevant then. In the meantime, feel free to argue with me about The Hunger Games.

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